Georgia today, like Germany for several decades, strives for re-unification. And it is a historical irony that a Georgian, then the foreign minister of the USSR, was amongst the leading figures in the process of German re-unification. Georgia’s challenge today is no less daunting and seems no less impossible; what is required of us is no less than a reservoir of patience and strategic foresight. We must keep committed to the end objective, which is peace as well as security. In this scheme, it is only fitting to reiterate one of Willy Brandt’s famous aphorisms: “Peace is not everything, but without peace everything is nothing.”
Member, Georgian parliament
To build peace, as one German wise man once admitted, talking on the second pillar of Ostpolitik, one should follow one rule: “If you cannot tell the truth, keep silent instead of telling a lie.” And the truth is that Georgian-Russian relations are poisoned with rhetoric that is filled with double meanings and little good will. A few days ago, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, noted that Georgia refuses to recognize the “realities” emerging from the August 2008 war; one of them being the recognition of the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. On this score, Russia is isolated, but there is an impression at times that there is an international community on one hand, and the so called “Near Abroad” region, where a different set of international norms apply, on the other. In this scheme, the Russian foreign minister noted, it was Georgia rather than Russia that cut off diplomatic ties, which implied that he did not see the 2008 war as an invasion, or the disruption of diplomatic engagement as a direct result of the occupation. Bottom line: the foreign minister of Russia believes that Georgia should swallow the bitter pill, accept secession and move on. This is hardly moving the situation toward de-escalation.
To believe that Georgia has to come to terms with the crude reality of division is to disregard the fact that governments tend to talk to governments and, besides good will, there is a need to represent nations. True, Russia demand so might gain sympathy in circles even outside Russia; but to make such a statement is an expression of Russia’s neo-imperial identity, which often goes hand-in-hand with the term “Near Abroad.” In this context, for Tbilisi, meeting Russia half way is impossible for a number of reasons, not least because of thousands of refugees who still want to go home, the fact that independence is valued and the occupation is still disruptive socially and economically. Alas, it is also a matter of identity, because conceding to the occupation would be tantamount to accepting one’s self-branding as “Near Abroad.” This cannot happen and will not happen.
So, we stick to what we can do. Some progress has been noted. Maximizing the benefits of diplomacy-without-diplomacy (or better to say some contacts in the absence of diplomatic relations), Georgia and Russia have moved onto Visa facilitation, some degree of security cooperation, and trade. Room for improvement is abundant. The benefit of this type of engagement is a bottom line orientation that directly affects people’s lives, allowing for what is customarily called “confidence building.” One can well imagine that such measures improve the lives of the sizable Georgian Diaspora in Russia. Market access is significant, even if Georgia has managed to shift the weight of its exports to Europe and Turkey. For Russia too, good will in the region is important in view of the Sochi Winter Olympics and, potentially, valuable in view of addressing various terrorists threats. The problem of course is that long term benefits for Russia in the region would require a long-term commitment. What we don’t share with Russia is a vision.
In a non-diplomatic framework it is diplomatically “inexpensive” to pursue “borderization,” to proceed with uniting Caucasian migrants, or to annul everything built in weeks and months of painstaking negotiations. Diplomacy, ultimately, is needed. Georgia is willing to be “flexible,” if indeed the issue is the degree of self-governance, cultural and human rights of its minorities. However, for Russia, there seems to be a sense of instrumentality in maintaining the status quo, that is, a series of non-states with their people living in limbo. In such non-regimes, political control is less checked; mini-oligarchs are more easily made and more easily broken; there are no foreign embassies and offers for ODA to complicate the “political context.” Russia is the context, but at a cost.
Deficits run high and energy runs cheaply, if paid at all, to these entities. Contenders for power increase the cost of status quo maintenance: judges are killed, terrorist attacks take place in Moscow and Volgograd and local “guarantors” of power require more resources. In sum, the status quo is not “for free.” And there is also an opportunity cost. Georgia is now debating reopening the railroad connecting Armenia to Russia, via Abkhazia, which is useful, but not necessary for Georgia. A growing logistics industry in a region where Asia and Europe meet might be useful, but not necessary. One wonders, if Russia can afford seeing Sochi’s decline to a ghost town in the aftermath of the Olympic Games, Russia will sit and watch as the potential of the region is going south, and the cost of its security heading north, when will a point be reached when the status quo maintenance will no longer be affordable, and some action will be necessary?
Peace with Russia means a lot to Georgia; at the present time, it means little to Russia, at least it looks like that for some Georgian policymakers. However, if one always leaves peace for another day, because the status quo is comfortable, a time might come when it is not. In cases such as Ukraine, for instance, the right people may secure the right decisions, until the right people start handling things in a less than ideal manner, at which point a right decision is required, 15 billion dollars and cheap energy. Neither dollars not energy is abundant. They are finite resources and this kind of diplomacy is acquiring a direct cost that is equally significant to its indirect—useful, but not necessary—cost. In sum, Russia borrows from its present at the expense of its future, which provides for tactical benefits that make little strategic sense. I need to admit that Georgians used to do that frequently for the last nine years since 2003.
There is not enough wine and mineral water to replace diplomacy or vision. If the diplomatic objective is not there, trade gains time and helps everyone make the most out of a day, a month or a year. But, this is not how relationships are built, or indeed investment and growth. Such dramatic change requires effective predictability and, therefore, not “signs of amelioration,” but certainty. This question brings to the fore a more fundamental objection to Russia’s strategic positioning.
Sadly, for a culture as rich as Russian, there is often the tendency to define Russia in terms of what it’s not: not Western, not European and not liberal. To speak of “Eurasianism,” or a “state-civilization,” is often to speak of a defensive culture. By contrast, recently China, but Europe for decades and the United States for centuries, approached the question of influence by formulating “a dream.” Russia has an identity, but lacks “a dream.” For global powers, this means an appeal to universality in which everyone can participate.
For instance, it is a paradox that Russia is not appealing to Georgia. Despite imperialism, in Tsarist times, Russia was Georgia’s window to modernity and, incidentally, to Europe. Georgia of course did not fit the Pan-Slavic frame of the Russian foreign policy, but the effect of enlightened tutelage is best described by novels such as “Ali and Nino,” which provides a historical mirror image for Russia that differs from the more common Far West “prisoners in the Caucasus” image prevalent from Pushkin to Tolstoy. Even the notion of Moscow emerging as a “Third Rome” and protector of Christians very much resonated with a brotherhood of Russian and Georgian nations. And of course, we are all reminded so often that both Stalin and Beria came from this part of the former Russian Soviet Empire. That Georgia and Russia have emerged as proverbial enemies is anything but “natural” in historical terms.
Nor is this sour relationship the result of security consideration; Russia hardly feels threatened by Georgia. The discussion is not about wealth. True, dominating networks such as railways, ports, airports, two way interconnectors, natural resources, communication, and media is a key to wealth. However, most of Russia’s resources in the region are spent in “denial of space” for others rather than in building networks and tangible influence. Often, the discussion seems to be about image alone, that is, Georgia’s image as a “defiant” state, which strikes sensitive cords, precisely because it undermines a distorted image of an Empire that Russia is harnessing for itself. To be fair, the mirror image of this Russian image is unwarranted Georgian bravado.
But, the bottom line for Russia is managing stability rather than adjusting to change. Investing in coercion, domestic as well as in the “Near Abroad,” is about managing the fear of change. There is of course change that is beyond any foreign policy foresight. If Germany were to move away from nuclear and fossil fuels simultaneously, a crisis would emerge; if fracking technology were to take off in China, as it did in the United States, a crisis would emerge. And this crisis would be devastating for Russia. However, the main concern of strategists should be what they can rather than what they cannot do. And right now, Russia has the power to build peace with Georgia, of a kind that is durable and acceptable.
Instead, Georgia is vilified, at a cost. Russia could make the most of its migrants. If migrants do not come, in Russia, given its demographic stagnation, welfare provisions for all will be unsustainable sooner rather than later; if non-state regimes keep being subsidized for as long as they are loyal, they will only be loyal as long as the subsidies they receive. Divide and rule is an ancient as much as effective policy tool, applicable in both domestic and foreign affairs. However, it has a cost and lasts only as long as this cost is bearable. Russia has the power to make time work in its favor, instead is expending time, resources, political and diplomatic capital for short-term gains that contribute nothing to a greater vision, largely because there is no such vision. Status quo maintenance always works against the ability to adapt.
Democracy, of the European kind, is not a magic wand providing right answers to every Russian wrongdoing. However, pluralism and interest accommodation is ultimately the art of managing change, not resisting it. That is not to say that untamed liberalization, with all its post transition excesses is the answer. Lack of social cohesion, xenophobia, and corruption are not phenomena unknown to democracies, especially these days, but pluralistic polities tend to overcome and accommodate, even if only gradually. The proof is that Georgia, with its chronic unemployment, limited greenfield investment and a tenuous path toward democratic consolidation remains on a Europeanization track. It is not infinite success, but the perception of open possibilities and the hope that future generations will pick up the thread left behind—that is, an idea of progress—that captures the energy and imagination of Georgians (and not only Georgians). But, with Russia, Georgians are continuously told to expect nothing: what they see is what they get. Still, Russia needs a vision for its role in the region it calls the “Near Abroad.”
Visions are not verifiable blueprints. They are the driving force of civic and institutional identity. If Russia were able to overcome its defensive rhetoric and come up with its own version of “a Good Neighborhood Policy,” Georgia would of course benefit; perhaps more significantly, Russia itself would benefit. Given the asymmetry of the two states, in terms of power, influence, size, and population, it is not about meeting half way. The relationship very much depends on how Russia views itself and where Georgia fits into this self-portrait of Russia. As much as possible, Georgia will be transactional, in time perhaps transformational. It will all depend on how much leeway Russia provides. For Georgians, sovereignty is about freedom of choice, not a nasty conspiracy to undermine Russian greatness. When this lesson sinks in Moscow, it may discover it has influence in Tbilisi beyond its expectations. And what we do in Tbilisi might acquire meaning. It is still true: “Peace is not everything, but without peace everything is nothing.”
The views expressed in this material do not necessarily coincide with those of the Georgian government.
Tedo Japaridze is the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in Parliament of Georgia.
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